Securing the future of the English Premier Ice Hockey League

Since I announced on Twitter last week what the topic of my column in the Basingstoke Bison for Sunday just gone (which shall from now on be known as League Winning Day) I have been asked to share the write up for those that weren’t at the game and therefore didn’t get a programme and have a read. With kind permission of Graham Bell of the Bison here’s the write up in full.

Good evening, welcome back to the Stampede fans and a warm welcome to the travelling Wildcats fans to what could be a massive game for the Bison!! Depending on results this could be the biggest game of the season for the Herd tonight.

Now last week I wrote about some travel chaos that arose concerning a meaningless Red Hockey Cup game in Bracknell, imagine my surprise when even before that programme went on sale that little problem was upstaged by a huge problem when Hull were left with no opponents after Bracknell failed to travel. Maybe by now Bees fans, or in fact any hockey fan, in attendance at their fans forum will know the excuse given but in truth there can be no justifiable reason that the journey to Hull never commenced last Friday! To compound the matter even more the Bees tweeted on the morning of the game that they were heading to Hull but then just didn’t!

You could argue that the two teams already confirmed missing the play-offs didn’t need the points but what’s wrong about the whole situation is that they need the income from the home games. Each team’s budget is done based on the 27 home games (and any challenge games) as these are guaranteed. Equally they know how many road games they need to cost in to the budget too.

Given the fuss made the week before when Manchester said they weren’t inclined to travel to play a game at Bracknell that wasn’t even required by the league schedule it was then amazing that the Bees didn’t travel to fulfil a game that was required by the league schedule.

Good news for Hull is that the fixture is rescheduled and hopefully the new date (last Friday) will have attracted the same income as the original date.

Now this season no single follower of the EPL can have not heard of the much publicised financial troubles of both the Bees and the Phoenix. Hockey is an easy sport to lose money in and a virtually impossible sport to get rich as an owner from! However, nobody forces people to own hockey clubs and when the going gets tough it’s time for the owners to battle through.

For 2014/15, with league short of a team, the “Challenge” Cup was formed that in general saw NIHL teams get thumped by EPIHL teams minus two imports on a regular basis. When Hull stepped forward this year to fill the 10th team position the Challenge cup was avoided much to the joy of the majority of EPL teams and possibly some of the NIHL teams that had taken part!

For a great deal of this season there’s been worry that two of the ten teams may not make the end of the season! Manchester have run various collection indicatives, share sales, brick sales to try and keep a non playing coach and a competitive team (that’s currently in 8th place and at best could finish in 7th place) as it was deemed essential the team should be competitive. Bracknell have seen an exodus of players as first rumours players weren’t being paid started circulating and then a press release from the club confirmed that they were letting players go because they couldn’t afford their outgoings and that some wages and other professional costs would have to be put on hold until such time as the club’s finances had caught back up to date.

In making any decisions about these two teams you have to consider that both teams has fans and they could, through no fault of their own, end up without a team to support! Also, would the EPL benefit from being an 8 team league where just 42 games would then decide the league winners but other than that there’d be nothing much to play for as all 8 teams would make the play-offs? I guess just 42 games would allow for a standalone cup competition to start the season before the league but you’d then end up with 4 meetings home and away with each side across the season and a lessening of variety.

We can all see that the EPL works well as a 10 team league. We’re in the second half of the penultimate weekend of the regular season and the league title is still live (well it is at the time of writing). The top 3 are still in contention as of Monday when I’m writing this and in general, other than the big cloud of the financial problems of two of the member clubs it’s been an exciting and enjoyable season. Hull Pirates came into the fold late but have been an exciting addition to the league. Telford Tigers have found while money bought them a league title it’s not retained it as other teams have improved around them. Milton Keynes are well on the way to building a solid fan base around an exciting team as well. There’s much goodness to shout about in the EPL.

However despite all the goodness when it comes to mainstream media coverage it will be the negative that hits the headlines. Irrespective of the good, like the Flames lifting the season’s first trophy 10 days back, or the potential that the league could be decided this weekend the sensational stories will be the financial ones and those are the ones that could end up covered.

The EPL is only a strong as its member base. Nobody within the EPL, not the teams nor the EIHA want the worry of whether or not the league will finish the season with the same number of teams it started with.

Other sports have penalties for dealing with financial woes for example points deductions or look at what happened to Glasgow Rangers when ultimately they went into Liquidation and started out in the lowest division of the Scottish Football League. Now neither of these cases are that severe but let’s keep them that way.

Given the troubled season that Manchester and Bracknell have had and the need for both teams to be entering stable rebuilding phases I would propose that the EIHA place both clubs into a probation type agreement, during which the EIHA has full access to the accounts on a weekly basis and can veto any spending decision that would put the club outside its available liquid assets or indeed cut back any previously agreed spending should the income sources not match those expected to ensure neither club drifts into the red.

That may seem a bit drastic, and it may be a bit of extra work for the EIHA but our sports needs protecting. In 13/14 Slough benefitted from Bracknell cutting an import and not replacing him with the signing of Kamil Tvrdek. Last season wasn’t the smoothest in the Bees history either and this season the alarm bells rung early with a pre-Christmas exodus starting. Alarm bells also rung early further north as Manchester announced the sizable targets they needed to fund raise in December, January, February and March in order to keep the club going to the end of the season in Deeside and survive to the long awaited and much promised temporary rink in Manchester.

Now I’m not aware of the ins and outs of either clubs’ financial statements but it’s simple to deduce that both situations have arisen as outgoings have exceeded incomings. Maybe the initial budgeting was wrong, maybe it wasn’t but certainly the actual hasn’t matched up to the budget and therefore early alarms have sounded.

With both clubs in a period of probation and the EIHA having review over the accounts and the spending all the figures in the budgets would have to be justified before being signed off and at the first sign of any trouble, should there be any, the EIHA could use its power of veto from the probation to keep the clubs financially stable and in the black.

Both the clubs that have struggled this season won’t be quick to get back stably to their feet and the other eight clubs within the EPL all deserve the assurances that the 16/17 league won’t be blighted by repeats. By the league’s governing body, the EIHA, putting both clubs into special measures or probation and therefore having the right to access to the clubs accounts until such times as both businesses have proven themselves stable and viable this gives the EPL and all its member clubs the biggest reassurance they could have that the 16/17 season talking points will be from on the ice and not virtual brick sales nor non affordable coaches for away games.

It’s time for the EIHA to act and take these two teams into a probationary state. To safeguard the league and also to safeguard the teams involved for their fan bases and the league. Other EPL teams need to know how many games the season will be next season so they can sell season tickets and sponsorships. The alternative is to say to the current owners that they must invite other interested parties to state an interest in running the two clubs that have been financially instable this season and should any come forward then a process of due diligence should begin on potential new owners.

Ice hockey isn’t cheep but it’s basically simple. A club either needs to at minimum break even or be funded by it’s owner in the event it runs at a loss. The priority mustn’t be the egos, the casualties mustn’t be the innocents. As the management of the English Premier Ice Hockey Association the English Ice Hockey Association must do something to ensure this doesn’t happen again and probation and governance of those two clubs is, I believe, the best way forward to stabilise the clubs and therefore the league and ensure the fans of Manchester and Bracknell continue to have teams to cheer for not just for the remainder of this season but stable teams to cheer on for the foreseeable future.

Back to tonight and let’s hope there’s a party in the ‘Stoke tonight after the final buzzer.

Enjoy the game


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